Dead Sea Scrolls

Ancient documents give a glimpse into Second Temple life.

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The Dead Sea Scrolls are the most prominent historical record of Jewish life in the Second Temple period. In the past century, scholars pieced together more than 900 documents that comprise this collection--mostly in Hebrew with a few in Aramaic and Greek--and concluded that they belonged to an ancient Jewish sect.

Because this library was discovered in the Judean desert in Israel, most scholars believe that the sect lived in this area. Communal halls and buildings have also been discovered close to the caves where the scrolls were found. Scholars believe the sectarian community hid the documents in nearby caves, fearing the Roman invasion of Palestine in 68 CE.dead sea scrolls

The Discovery of the Scrolls

In 1947 the first jars containing what is known today as the Dead Sea Scrolls were accidentally discovered by a young Bedouin shepherd near the northwest shore of the Dead Sea, in Wadi Qumran, present day Israel. One of the most important finds within the Scrolls are the oldest known records of the Hebrew Bible, dating back to the second century BCE. Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha texts were also found within the Qumran library. Altogether, the 900 documents that were found in and around Qumran include legislative material, commentaries and embellishment on the Pentateuch, and hymns that scholars believe were recited by the Qumran community on special occasions.

The Dead Sea Scrolls have added a major chapter to Jewish history by giving scholars a better understanding of the Jewish community during the Second Temple period. The texts seem to have been produced by a sectarian community that was apocalyptic in nature, expecting a battle between good and evil in the near future. This community embraced a distinctive, older calendar that differed from the calendar used by the Jerusalem community. Based on this, scholars believe the Qumran sect fled to the Judean wilderness due to a schism with the mainstream Jewish community, probably related to priestly practices and authority in the Temple.

Biblical Texts

Scrolls and fragments of scrolls from all books of the Hebrew Bible have been discovered at Qumran, with the exception of Esther and Ezra/Nehemiah. The best preserved document is the Great Isaiah Scroll, which includes all 66 chapters roughly intact. Two full Isaiah scrolls were discovered at Qumran along with fragments from at least twenty additional Isaiah scrolls. Scholars believe the book of Isaiah was one of the more revered writings of this sectarian community, which might have believed it was fulfilling the words of the prophet: "In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord (Isaiah 40:3)."

The text of the Qumran Isaiah scrolls sometimes differs from the Isaiah text in today's Hebrew Bible. Scholars believe that when the Dead Sea Scrolls were composed, only the Pentateuch was considered canonical. All supplementary books, including those found in Prophets and Writings, were considered complementary to the fixed Bible text--and multiple versions of these books existed.

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Hannah Wortzman

Hannah Wortzman is a PhD candidate in the Department of Jewish Thought at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the Scholion Interdisciplinary Research Center for Jewish Studies. She is also a research assistant at the Orion Centre for the Dead Sea Scrolls and Related Literature.

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